The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. "Man Is A Tool-making Animal"

James Boswell

"Man Is A Tool-making Animal"

Context: On Tuesday, April 7, 1778, Boswell ate breakfast with Dr. Johnson at the latter's house in London, and the conversation was varied. For example, Johnson mentioned that he had once bought a flageolet, but had never been able to play a tune upon it; to this comment Boswell retorted that the size and sounds of a cello made it a fitter instrument for a man of Johnson's size and character. The talk also was, in part, about people. Dr. Johnson pointed out that Dr. John Campbell, who was accurate with his pen in hand, was unreliable in conversation for the handling of the truth. Comments were also made by the two men on Mrs. Montagu and Mr. Harris, with Johnson saying that the latter was "a prig and a bad prig," which observation led to the following exchange, in which Boswell attributed the definition of man as a tool-making animal to Benjamin Franklin:


BOSWELL
. . . He [Mr. Harris] says plain things in a formal and abstract way, to be sure: but his method is good: for to have clear notions upon any subject, we must have recourse to analytick arrangement.
JOHNSON
Sir, it is what every body does, whether they will or no. But sometimes things may be made darker by definition. I see a cow, I define her, Animal quadrupes ruminians cornutum. But a goat ruminates, and a cow may have no horns. Cow is plainer.
BOSWELL
I think Dr. Franklin's definition of Man [is] a good one–"A tool-making animal."
JOHNSON
But many a man never made a tool; and suppose a man without arms, he could not make a tool.